Embodying the archetypal modern photographer, Rankin’s industrious work ethic, versatility and tireless self-promotion have allowed him to thrive in today’s incredibly competitive photography industry. Known for his portrait, fashion and commercial work, he has established himself as one of the most influential and far-reaching creatives working in Britain today.
Born in Paisley, Scotland, in 1966, he initially started his career as a publisher, launching a series of era-defining magazines that included the groundbreaking Dazed & Confused. In recent years he has developed his brand, capturing images of some of the biggest celebrities on the planet, as well as working with international companies on their advertising campaigns.
In this installment of Know Your Photographers, we talk with Rankin to get his frank perspective on a life behind the camera.
Dazed and Confused
As John Rankin Waddell was entering his teenage years, Margaret Thatcher had just begun her stint as Britain’s longest-serving prime minister. Her conservative party was considered by many to be the enemy of the working class and her policies were widely condemned as both vindictive and punitive. In protest, young people turned to art, music and literature as a way of expressing their anger, transforming the Thatcher years into an explosion of cultural rebellion.
Although not overtly political in his youth, Waddell, who later adopted the mononym Rankin, was swept up in this new wave of creativity. His artistic eureka moment occurred at the age of 21 when he first laid his hands on a friend’s camera. “I felt my whole life change, almost in an instant,” he recalls of the encounter. “It may be rose-tinted glasses looking back, but I knew that was what I wanted to do.”
The next few years were spent figuring out a way of making a career from of his newfound passion. Much to the despair of his family, especially his father, he dropped out of an accounting degree at Brighton Polytechnic, retook his A-levels and enrolled in a photography course at the London College of Printing.
It proved to be a wise decision as it was here that he met his friend and future business partner Jefferson Hack. Although the pair was initially involved in the local music scene, they were desperate to break into the media industry and burgeoning DIY magazines such as Terry Jones’s i-D and Nick Logan’s The Face both fascinated and inspired them.
“We had both been doing stuff for student magazines and that gave us the inspiration to just go and do it ourselves,” Rankin remembers. “We were both excited and inspired by similar things, so decided to start a magazine together.”
With the money they had saved from putting on student club nights and a simple division of labor (“I took the photos and he did the interviews”), they launched the now-seminal Dazed & Confused in 1991. The first issue, a series of black-and-white folded A3 pages complete with a pull-out color poster, featured articles on William Burroughs, John Godber and Tommy Cooper. Although neither of them realized it at the time, on show were the embryonic beginnings of a magazine that would go on to dramatically change the face of Britain’s fashion press.
As Dazed found its feet, it began to focus heavily on youth culture and fashion, purposefully developing a reputation for its unusual and uncompromising articles and bold editorial style. Tackling issues such as beauty and gender from a distinctly anti-fashion point of view, it was seen by many as the perfect antidote to the excess glamour of the ‘80s.
Fiercely innovative, Dazed consistently broke new ground in terms of content. Both Hack and Rankin were keen for it to be a vocal supporter of LGBTQ rights, and the magazine tackled issues surrounding sexuality and equality long before they became common talking points in the mainstream media.
Widely ignored subjects such as disability in fashion were met head-on. For the September 1998 issue, guest edited by Alexander McQueen, Paralympic champion Aimee Mullens became the first amputee to feature on the cover of a British fashion magazine.
Rankin, acutely aware of fostering a strong culture of collaboration at Dazed, turned its pages into an incubation hub for young stylists, make-up artists and journalists and many of its alumni have since gone on to fill a number of high-profile fashion and media roles throughout the world.
Katy England, Alexander McQueen’s long-standing stylist and confidant, started her career as the magazine’s fashion director. Likewise, Katie Grand, who worked closely with Rankin on some of the most iconic of Dazed’s covers, later went on to collaborate extensively with Marc Jacobs as his creative director.
The Rise of Rankin
As Dazed grew in popularity, it soon began to attract a higher caliber of celebrity. As co-founder and lead photographer, this allowed Rankin a chance to really develop himself as a portrait photographer and it soon became clear that he possessed a talent for connecting with his subjects.
With people such as Madonna, Jay Z and Björk all sitting for him, Rankin also had to learn how to stop himself from becoming star-struck when working with big names. “I try to go in with a clean slate,” he explains of his methodology. “I think it comes from my parents and being from Glasgow, learning to respect people but not place them on pedestals.
“Also, I learned very early on that famous people are as real and fragile as the next person, sometimes more fragile in that weird way of always being scrutinised. So, I try to just be normal and self-deprecating. To make it feel less like being under a microscope and more collaborative, like we’re in it together. Collaboration is very important.”
From super sexy shots of models to dynamic images of musicians, Rankin turned his hand to a range of styles, showing versatility both in and out of the studio. Although this adaptability meant that his work had less of a cohesive visual aesthetic than peers such as Mario Testino and Juergen Teller – two men defined by their unmistakable ‘look’ – it afforded him a greater amount of creativity, allowing him to switch approaches depending on the subject.
A fine example of this flexibility can be seen in one of his most iconic images, an intimate portrait of Tony Blair, the then-serving British prime minister. Shot for the Financial Times magazine in a style reminiscent of Richard Avedon’s In the American West, it showed Blair as world weary, the pretenses of politics reluctantly and revealingly removed. Rankin, and his belief in collaboration, didn’t try to cajole or manipulate Blair. Instead, he gave the viewer a frank and humanist insight into one of the world’s most powerful, and unpopular, men.
“It was a gift,” he says. “As a photographer, you learn to run with the gift. He was late and he was tired and he was obviously really busy and he was, you know, in the middle of a war. And when you get someone like that, you can kind of do two things. You can try and persuade them to give you something and try and charm them into doing something interesting, or you can not do anything and just take the picture.”
Rankin the Commercial Photographer
By the turn of the millennium, Rankin had firmly established himself as one of Britain’s most in-demand photographers. With a reputation as a pioneering publisher and accomplished portrait photographer, he quickly set about forming his own mini-empire, turning his attention to the world of commercial photography.
Once again, his versatility behind the camera served him well. His innate storytelling ability, coupled with a strong sense of playfulness, saw him acquire a diverse list of international clients that ranged from the likes of Unilever and Mercedes, to Nokia and Hugo Boss.
His aptitude for commercial photography led him to expand the Rankin brand. He set up The Full Service, a creative agency that utilized his industry contacts to create marketing campaigns for the likes of Versace, Belstaff and Oliver Spencer. Another venture, RANKINFILM, was established as way of capitalizing on the burgeoning video content market, and, somewhat usefully, it provided clients of The Full Service with all of their film needs.
The relentless plate spinning rarely ceased. Since the turn of the century, he has collaborated with charities such as Oxfam and Women’s Aid, directed pop music videos for Miley Cyrus, Kelis and Rita Ora, toured the globe with his gallery shows, published more than 30 books, and even released a feature film in 2006 entitled The Lives of Saints. He is, by his own admission, a workaholic.
Still, he retains a love affair with print. When asked what it is about the medium that he loves so much, he doesn’t hold back. “Everything,” he says fervently. “The touch, smell, the mountains of room books and magazines take up. The fact that it is incredibly democratic, cheap and it means you can own any number of creative’s work, for as little as a price of a coffee. It’s also to do with curation. A magazine is a carefully selected exhibition of images, in a way that Instagram just isn’t.”
Whilst Dazed has been going for almost a quarter of a century, it was only the beginning of Rankin’s foray into publishing. In December 2000, he launched RANK, a quarterly magazine dedicated to all things on the periphery of the fashion industry. AnOther Magazine and Another Man followed shortly after, both catering to a more discerning and older clientele.
But his adoration of print isn’t to say he’s opposed to digital media. “I love what is going on with mixed media film, magazines, websites, social media. Yes, it is dangerous in lots of ways, but it also creates lots of opportunities. Let’s be honest, the way certain photographers or creatives have had the world sewn up for years, is crashing down around them. In my opinion that creates opportunity and freshness.”
Not content with the success of previous titles, in November 2011 he launched his latest venture, Hunger, a bi-annual magazine focusing on fashion, film and, of course, his photography. Accompanying the physical printed edition is HungerTV, a digital platform showcasing videos, web-only content and the latest trending topics.
A Legacy in Print
Ultimately, Rankin’s legacy is that which he has left in print. The commercial photography, ad work and commissioned portraits have certainly made him a rich man, but his contribution to the fashion press has been his biggest achievement.
His daring and dynamic approach has introduced new generations to the world of fashion, helped give them a voice and ultimately paved the way for a new media landscape. But despite all the upheaval brought about the digital revolution, Rankin still believes that “nothing beats holding a magazine in your hands.”
Now read up on lauded German photographer Juergen Teller.